The 16th annual DisOrient Asian American Film Festival almost didn’t happen this year. Last year’s festival, which screened March 10-15, narrowly became one of the final in-person art events held in Eugene before COVID-19 forced arts businesses from movie theaters to concert venues to shutter their doors.
The idea of revamping the film festival for online viewing this year was daunting. Then, nearly three months into quarantine, a second national tragedy occurred that made DisOrient directors rethink the festival’s hiatus.
“In May, the George Floyd murder happened. And we were suddenly thrown into a period of racial reckoning,” DisOrient Program Director Susan Hirata says.
As protests sparked across the country, along with revitalized conversations surrounding white supremacy and allyship, Hirata and Executive Director Pamela Quan knew they needed to create a platform for meaningful discussions about social justice.
“We decided we can’t not hold space for these conversations, because now is the time,” Hirata says. “There is a long history of Asian Americans and Black people working as allies. Sometimes white supremacy drives a wedge between minorities, but we need to work together.”
This year, DisOrient will continue its 15-year history of featuring independent movies, documentaries and short films with a focus on “social justice themes that translate to universal human experiences.” This year’s festival includes a live stream panel discussion titled “The role of API filmmakers in supporting Black Lives Matter.” Panelists include Karen Ishizuka, writer, documentary producer and chief curator of the Japanese American National Museum, and Hisonni Mustafa, a Guyanese American cinematographer and filmmaker known for his work on the series Grayson: Earth One.
Since its inception, the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival has aimed to foster understanding in a community where minority viewpoints are not always explored.
“In Eugene there are not a lot of opportunities for people to enter into non-white spaces,” Hirata says. “Our festival gives us a chance to do that.”
While the films screened at DisOrient focus on the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience — some telling stories of immigration, diaspora and assimilation — the narratives are broadly human. Films explore themes of elder care, drug use and socioeconomic struggles.
One feature film, See You Then, directed by trans filmmaker Mari Walker, follows the one-night journey of a transgender computer programmer and an Asian American performance artist who reunite 15 years after dating in college. Another film, the semi-autobiographical Coming Home Again, follows Chang Rae-Lee, a Korean American novelist who earned his MFA from the University of Oregon, as he returns to San Francisco to care for his elderly mother.
The goal, Quan says, is to show audiences that these stories, too, are what it means to be American.
At a time of dramatically increased violence against Asian Americans — hate crimes motivated by anti-Asian sentiment skyrocketed by 1,900 percent in New York City last year, according to data from the NYPD — these discussions are particularly poignant.
“If people were more familiar with our stories, we wouldn’t have this problem of anti-Asian racism,” Quan says. “We’re using DisOrient to counter that.”
Exploring the broad spectrum of Asian American life can also be refreshing for a community that finds itself woefully underrepresented on screen. While 5.4 percent of the U.S. population is Asian American, they made up only 1.4 percent of lead characters in studio films in 2014, according to Time. Films produced by, for and starring Asian Americans allow for a source of cultural pride.
“In the past I’ve seen youth who don’t want to draw attention to their own identity and differences,” Quan says. “But I’ve seen growth, just by us existing, and creating art.”
Directors of the DisOrient Asian American Film Festival hope that their event sparks opportunity for connection, both across communities and in homes.
This year, films will screen over a 10-day period starting March 19. Once a ticket is purchased for a film, it can be viewed multiple times or in several sittings over the course of a 24-hour rental period. As Quan points out, this means parents could first view a film before sharing it with their children.
“Maybe you decide you want to have that talk about racism, or drug use, or mental health,” Quan says. “Our films are a great way to do that.” Quan recommends holding watch parties and talking about the movies with family and friends.
Although DisOrient will be held online this year, the magic of what makes film festivals so special — the chance to connect with others — remains.
“They say you’ve never seen a film until you’ve talked about it,” Hirata says. “These films beg to be talked about.”
DisOrient Asian American Film Festival runs March 19-28. Tickets are $9 for a single show, $48 for an all-access pass, at DisOrientFilm.org. Screenings, Q&A with filmmakers and the panel discussion on “The role of API filmmakers supporting Black Lives Matter” open on March 19.